Goldfinger: I was homeless and upon reading the section of Dire Means where Mark Denny was being treated as if he was homeless, it really brought me back to how I felt in regards to the way people treated me. How were you able to do this so accurately? What experiences in your life helped you write this part of Dire Means?
Neil: First of all, thank you. I have, so far, avoided homelessness, so when a person like you, who has survived both homelessness and drug addiction, says that I accurately portrayed a homeless person’s point of view, it’s an enormous compliment. I don’t presume to understand the harshness of living on the streets, however, I do know the feeling of being avoided or placed under suspicion for something that I cannot help –my appearance. Trying to date while attending predominately white schools, being pulled over by police and detained and harassed because I “fit the description” and a host of other experiences have given me some insight into feeling “different.” In some places, if I walk into a store wearing sweats and a baseball cap after not having shaved for a couple days, I see women clutch purses tighter, men keep a closer eye and concern spread on the clerk’s face before I smile to cut the tension. None of these reactions happen if I enter wearing a tie. Stereotypes exist and I understand that. I may react to my own prejudices sometimes. These experiences have given me a clear sense of how it feels to be avoided and suspected. To write the scenes in Dire Means from the homeless perspective, I exaggerated the feelings I’ve experienced, hoping to capture the abject feelings of a homeless person when he/she is simultaneously conspicuous and ignored.
Goldfinger: The difference between a writer and a stage performer is that writers work in isolation, without immediate feedback. Did you have dark times while writing this book, and how did you get through them?
Neil: I’m okay with the isolation and sometimes I embrace it. I prefer to write with the door closed, in bed with a laptop. My family can always interrupt me, but generally they don’t. I take the isolation a step further by needing absolute quiet in the room when I write. If I hear music, my sentences come out staccato and screwed up -and it’s much worse if the music has lyrics. When I turn off the music and read my sentences back, I’ll inevitably hold down the backspace button until the gibberish disappears, and then start over. As for the “dark times,” becoming too involved in my story is a problem I welcome. The opposite problem is far more frustrating. A couple of times while writing Dire Means, I felt like I was being sucked into a dark emotional whirlpool. One of those times was while writing Pop’s (the “villain”) perspective on the tour of the underground sty. He took so much pride in his death chambers. In order to illustrate the scientific method (and glee) Pop took while “dieting” those who abuse the homeless, I did some rather extensive medical research on the stages of dehydration and starvation. Initially, I illustrated every symptom in the victims from skin discoloration to liver and muscle glycogenolysis to the agony of a completely dried stomach and nasal lining. (Yes, I agree, that’s too much.) Finally, I scrapped all the physiologic symptoms, realizing it’s just as terrifying to simply describe being sealed in a soft, well-ventilated, underground, suicide-proof chamber with no hope of escape and let the reader’s imagination work out the 10-or-so days worth of details. That section was darker than I expected and I had to write it in shorter sessions.
Goldfinger: Tell the readers of Spare Change News a little about your life. Go anywhere you choose with this question.
Neil: I grew up in a wonderful town in upstate New York called Natural Bridge. My dad was the town doctor, and Mom spent all her time with my two sisters and me. We enjoyed an ideal country lifestyle with a nice house, chickens, ducks, horses, fishing, the most fantastic friends and anything a child could want. I feel fortunate to have experienced my first taste of life there and still call it home. After leaving New York at the age of ten, we moved back and forth between the east and west coast three times, settling in southern California. Ours was a fairly conservative Seventh-Day Adventist home, with regular church attendance on Saturdays. For high school I attended a private boarding academy on Sunset Beach in Central California on Monterey Bay. College was back in Southern California where I earned a BA degree in communication, preparing me for absolutely no career. After a number of years in sales, I’ve settled into self-employment, providing computer support to a number of clients in Los Angeles. I’ve always enjoyed writing to entertain and have kept many personal journals over the years. A few years ago a close friend of mine gave me an opportunity to write a weekly column for some local newspapers. I enjoyed that and decided to take on the task of completing a novel. I fantasized about slapping a book on to the kitchen table, pointing to it and saying, “I wrote that.” It happened last year with Dire Means and now I have a taste for more.
Goldfinger: If, suddenly, civilization all around you was devastated by a storm or an act of terror, etc. and you and your family became homeless, such as in New Orleans, what do you think you would do? You create the scenario.
Neil: I’m an innately paranoid person, so I imagine these scenarios all the time. Living in southern California, the biggest threat to us is probably a devastating earthquake. My wife and I have taken some preparatory steps. We have some stashed cash hidden within walking distance of our house. We always have extra water on hand and plenty of canned goods. If our car wasn’t crushed in our underground garage, I imagine surviving in our SUV until we could access resources to rebuild. If that’s not possible, I have a number of wealthy friends nearby who would let us stay in their furnished garages or pool houses –and I’ve actually discussed it with one of them! It may sound ridiculous to imagine this, but it isn’t. In California, unless you own multiple homes and a helicopter you keep in your back yard, you could find yourself stranded in a matter of seconds. Thank you, Marc, for scaring me half to death all over again! I realize that unexpected homelessness is a risk and reality for more people than ever in our economy. For me, realizing my own vulnerability keeps my empathy alive when I see people who need help after experiencing misfortune.
Goldfinger: Is writing your primary calling or do you have other major career interests?
Neil: I enjoy writing enough to make it a career, but, of course, that’s dependent on sales. I’ll keep writing either way. It has become therapeutic for me. Unlike my computer job, results in my stories always happen just as I wish them to!
Goldfinger: What would you tell someone who wishes to pursue a career in writing? Assume that this person is really writing and not just talking about writing.
Neil: Write often and a lot, no matter what. And then regularly convince some people who don’t love you to read it, and tell you what they think of it –the majority of their opinions will probably be the truth. Then, if you love writing, keep writing despite what the people said. If you’re serious about writing you won’t wait for the perfect story to come to mind, or a high powered agent to sign you, or a dream publishing contract; you’ll just write and write. Mark Twain said, “Write for no pay until someone offers to pay.” That’s been my mindset. It requires discipline for me to sit down and write daily when I’m tired and when there’s a perfectly good television nearby. I write a great volume of words each day, but most are technical, for my work. My schedule forces me to do any creative writing in smaller doses at night. I try to do 500-1000 words a session when drafting. On the weekend I can do more. I know those numbers are nothing to some writers, but that’s the pace I seem to be able to afford at the moment. My personal record was about 4,800 words in one day, but that night my wrists ached; I freaked out and rested four days –ruining any advantage the record gained me!
Goldfinger: Dire Means has a Karmic theme. Do you believe what goes around comes around? Or do you think, at times, that life can be random chaos?
Neil: Yes, I believe what goes around comes around. My belief in Karma doesn’t preclude my belief in God. I think people who don’t believe in Karma are confused because they insist that they should be able to recognize the form and timing of payback –good or bad. (Who doesn’t want the jerk that just cut you off to get a traffic ticket in the next block?) In my favorite novels, Karma plays out in a simple, much more direct and identifiable way than it does in real life. I think you’ve correctly detected my fascination with it in Dire Means.
Goldfinger: What, assuming your writing career takes off and you find yourself with more money than you ever thought you would make, would you do to help others in the world? Obviously, we pick and choose where we give. Tell Spare Change News readers a little bit about your choices and why you make them.
Neil: My wife and I already give a minimum of 10% of all we make to various charities. Our choices are based on causes that we discover and that move us. Having lots of money would change nothing except that we’d be able to give a larger percentage. Homeless charities are always good candidates for our giving and anyone who reads Dire Means will understand why I’ll always give to charities that benefit the homeless.
Goldfinger: Let our readers know how to find Dire Means. Talk a little bit about your future plans, both in computer support and writing.
Neil: Dire Means is available in soft cover only from online retailers for the time being. This helped to keep it affordable. Barnes & Noble and Amazon are the largest retailers to offer the physical copies for sale online. It now has wide e-distribution and you can have a copy of Dire Means for only $2.99 –and that’s after having read a free sample of 50% through Smashwords.com. Future plans – I’m approximately one-third of the way through my next novel entitled Human Resources. One character from Dire Means has been brought forward. Hopefully this will give some additional satisfaction to those who enjoyed my first book. It will be published sometime in early 2011. Meanwhile, I continue my computer support business in Los Angeles, funding my livelihood and my writing.
Goldfinger: Is there anything else you want to tell us about? Open field here.
Neil: Yes, I’m flattered that you wanted to interview me -thank you. I also want to remind readers (if they happen to be homeless) of something that’s easy to forget: that many of us “housed” people truly care about the plight of the homeless even though our concern may not be obvious in public. Some of us want to help, but are fearful –particularly if mental illness or intoxication is apparent. The braver of us volunteer at shelters while yet others prefer to swipe a pen across a check to help. Out here in Los Angeles, there is a radio talk show host who annually has a special show during the holiday season where he plays soft, soothing holiday music in the background while he invites listeners to call in and simply give their opinion of homeless people. The act is a tongue-in-cheek exposition of ignorance. I’m always amazed at how many people call to vent their hatred for those they call “eye sores.” Caller after caller rings in to spew hatred and advertise their ignorance by blasting homeless people for not getting a job. The host says very little, masterfully presenting the irony of “live” hate speech overlaid on soft songs like Joy to the World. This makes a powerful point and I always get out of my car vowing not to be like the callers.
Neil: The theme of Dire Means came from my frustration that goodwill toward men hasn’t been strong enough to solve the problem of homelessness. I decided to channel my anger and frustration into my own dark fantasy where love and a feeling of brotherhood could be forced –as a last resort. I hope that anyone who reads my book will recognize my desire to portray homeless people as important and kindness to them as honorable.